Havana, Cuba – Part 2: The “Road” to Havana! Be Sure to Apply for your Visa!

Waiting patiently at the gate, with nearby flights leaving soon for Puerto Rico and multiple destinations in Cuba, I tested my Spanish language skills; announcements were being made in English and Spanish, but the gate agent’s muffled speech, broadcast to the entire terminal, made both difficult to make out. Headed to Havana, Cuba on Southwest airlines, there’s a 3-hour layover in Fort Lauderdale. It’s a small terminal without a lot of things to do, so I grab breakfast at the only sit-down restaurant in the area.

I’d woken up around 3:30 am to catch my first flight, out of John Glenn International Airport, in Columbus, OH. I wouldn’t arrive in Havana until around 1 pm, but I planned to make the most of the 24 hours I’d have on the ground.

In Fort Lauderdale, it was time to pick up my Visa. Pre-ordered online for $50, the Visa is a formality, because there are limited reasons that a U.S. Citizen can travel to Cuba. I’m required to declare a legitimate, approved reason for visiting the country. Most of the approved activities are aimed at supporting the Cuban people, and contributing to their cultural, social and economic development. In my case, “Accidental Wanderlust” provided sufficient reason for travel, falling under the category of “Journalistic Activity”. It was like a return to my college days, when I was pursuing a degree in newspaper journalism. This felt comfortable, and worthwhile.

The gate agent was in good spirits, but a bit flustered. He explained that the flight was full, with 175 occupied seats. It was only the 2nd day of service to Cuba, on Southwest. The agent was cautious in issuing us the Visas, not wanting anyone to be turned away when we landed, or unable to reenter the U.S. upon our return. “Be patient with us,” he requested, “it’s only our 2nd day!” I was so thrilled to be taking this trip that I had patience to spare.

“General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in the following existing categories: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.” (White House, Office of the Press Secretary)

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A lot of travelers who were taking advantage of this new flight service didn’t seem to know how Southwest operates, especially when we were trying to board. There was a lot of drama surrounding lining up according to boarding group / number. There are no assigned seats on Southwest, and worried glances were exchanged. Overstuffed suitcases were not fitting overhead, and prolonged discussions were going on between family members, concerning seat choice, and who got to sit by the window.

Perhaps on their first trip to Cuba, 2 handsome, young brothers (maybe 4 and 7 years old) boarded the plane in matching white, sleeveless T-shirts. It would be 88 degrees when we landed. The older of the two led the way, carrying a duffle bag almost as big as he was. The younger brother trailed behind, preoccupied by the large chocolate stain down the front of his shirt. His hair was gelled and combed to the side, in a style that reminded me of a 1950’s “Greaser”. He had a rather stoic expression on his face – “Muy Serioso!” says the woman in the aisle seat beside me, as he walked past. Their mother gave him a gentle nudge, signaling him to pick up his pace, and rolled her eyes.

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Less than an hour later, it’s 5. . . 4. . . 3. . . 2. . . 1. . . wheels on the ground in Havana, Cuba, and the passengers explode into applause! I have only carryon bags, so getting through the airport is quick. At breakfast the next morning I learn, from some fellow travelers, that the wait for checked luggage can take hours, so I’m relieved that I packed light. I’ll only be on the ground for 24 hours, after all, but I have camera equipment and some items I brought along as donations, in a gesture at humanitarianism, in the name of education. (I brought English language books with me – watch for a future post about the café and bookstore that I donated them to.)

The airport is a yellowish-orange, single-story building. Security takes my photo on the way in, and asks my permission to stamp my passport with the country’s official stamp. I don’t hesitate to say “yes”! I hear from a seasoned business traveler, on my way out of the country, that many Americans have historically not wanted the stamp, due to concerns that it may raise suspicions about their motives behind visiting the country. I’m glad that I do not share such concerns.

The bathroom I visit, before leaving the building, reeks of cigarette (or cigar?) smoke. There don’t seem to be strict environmental protection policies in place. There’s no toilet seat, which I’ll encounter numerous times over the next 24 hours, and I’m only mildly surprised to discover no toilet paper. When the flight attendant back in Columbus heard that I was traveling to Cuba she referred to it as a 3rd World Country. I thought she was being a bit dramatic, but perhaps she was merely using the term loosely, to describe its economic status.

“”Third World” is a phrase commonly used to describe a developing nation, but actually started as term used to describe a country’s allegiance. A Third World country is a country whose views are not aligned with NATO and capitalism or the Soviet Union and communism. The use of the term “Third World” started during the Cold War and was used to identify which of three categories the countries of the world aligned with. The First World meant that you aligned with NATO and capitalism, and the Second World meant you supported Communism and the Soviet Union.” (Investopedia.com)

Sliding doors open to the Cuban heat, and throngs of people are held back by a metal barricade. They excitedly await the arrival of their friends and family! A cab driver quickly shuttles me over to his taxi, makes note of the Airbnb location I’d be staying at, and I’ve arrived in Cuba! I’m ready to learn about this culture that so few Americans have experienced firsthand, pleased that the government has recently made travel to this country more accessible, along with ending restrictions on Cuba’s political, social and economic activities.

I travel for so many reasons, beyond the spirit of adventure, and the requirement that I be mobile to do my job as a Regional Trainer. Travel offers so many things to those who have the luxury to pursue it! We travel to gain courage, perspective and understanding. We travel for novelty or to gain an education. It’s an escape, and sometimes we travel out of simple boredom. Travel can be an act of protest, avoidance, or defiance. Some people travel to dangerous places, seeking a way to feel alive, or just wanting to be among the first to travel there. In a sense, they do it for shock value. With travel comes status, and sometimes personal transformation. Connections are made, clarity is found, and self-reflection is inevitable.

Some people might consider constant, unending travel, what seems like a sort of perpetual motion, to be a form of “flight” – flight from home, and the trials and obligations of day-to-day life. In a way, it is that, but travel has the potential to represent so much more, to discover a world outside your own.

Can a quick trip out of the country, with just 24 hours on the ground, encompass so many of these aspects of travel? I’m convinced that it can, especially when the destination is one as novel and unexpected as Cuba. A casual reference to my plans to visit Cuba elicited many raised eyebrows, immediately followed by envious expressions, and demands for pictures and stories upon my return. There’s a curiosity about the place, which is healthy. The United States’ relationship with Cuba is evolving.

“We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.  It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.  We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.  With our actions today, we are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities.  In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help.” (White House, Office of the Press Secretary – see link below)

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Admittedly, a walk through Old Havana is like stepping back in time, with classic American cars from the 1940s and 1950s all over the roads, some so well maintained that they look like they just came off of the production line, others rusted, with mismatched doors and trunks, and questionable, refurbished parts under the hood. What this means is that the streets are not quiet.

On the way into Old Havana a busy street, three lanes in each direction, runs along the coast. There is no sense in waiting to find a crosswalk before attempting to make it across. Pedestrians dash across, dodging vehicles with confidence, as if they were winning at a game of “Frogger”.

There is a mishmash of traffic, moving in all directions. An elderly woman pushes a wheelchair along the side of the road, and I wonder what stories the disabled man in the chair would tell. Two teens share a single bicycle, one balanced with ease on the frame of the bike, between the seat and the handlebars; they are chatting casually as they make their way across town. Guys on busses are hanging out of the side windows, their shirt sleeves rolled to their elbows to combat the heat, just watching the world go by. I spot a wheelbarrow being pushed along a side street. Every minute or two a taxi honks at me, offering this tourist a ride.

Inside Old Havana I make my way past buildings that are a hundred years old, or more, with sections that are abandoned and paint that has faded and peeled away, encouraging vandalism in the form of graffiti. But this is a city rebuilding, and these relics are sandwiched between new construction of 5 Star hotels and trendy restaurants, even here in the old part of town.

La Floridita – a bar and restaurant opened in 1817, and made famous by being frequented by Ernest Hemmingway – is nestled in Old Havana, in line with art galleries, shops selling trinkets to tourists, and liquor stores lined with shelf after shelf of rum.

The place is in excellent condition, and has become a bit of a tourist destination, since the days when Hemmingway frequented the bar, claiming his favorite seat in the corner. There is now a life-sized statue of the writer, leaning comfortably against the bar. Just inside the door, a small band plays festive music to entertain a crowd that sits back, relaxing and sipping on frozen daiquiris and mojitos. There’s no shortage of rum, and the drink is flavored with crushed spearmint and lime juice – very refreshing.

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With my camera in hand I walk up and down the old streets, careful to avoid tripping over large cracks in the sidewalk, and small dogs underfoot, begging for a handout. One pooch doesn’t like it when he discovers I have nothing to offer, hurries quickly past me, then turns back to yap a few times in my direction. He’s letting me know what he thinks of me!

I check out a few shops, purchase bike art from a local artist, and join the flow of traffic, making its way along a main avenue, with a large central pedestrian mall. Groups of locals play chess, strum guitars or kick a soccer ball back and forth.

Ambitious salesmen offer tourists Cuban cigars, pointing the way to a shop with the “best prices”. My Canon is slung around my neck, and I’m one of many serious photographers, carrying bags with multiple lenses and tripods. Everything is moving by fast, there’s music and friendly chatter in the air, and it’s a lot to take in. I could sit in one spot and be entertained for days. But I don’t have days to spend there, and am already tossing around the idea of a return trip.

The most delicious meal I eat, during my 24 hours in Cuba, is at a small restaurant called Gente San Juan – “De Fiesta!! Gastronomia Centro Habana”. The restaurant sits across the street from the Malecon, a sort of promenade and sea wall that stretches for 5 miles along the Cuban coast.

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It must be close to 11 pm, and the sidewalk is crowded with couples wrapped in each other’s arms, groups of teens sitting on the wall, sharing a bottle of rum, and old men sharing their stories, with fishing poles in hand. I sit outside of the small restaurant, eating my lime pork and beans & rice, so I can watch the foot traffic. More Mojitos are being offered, and it’s hard to say no. There is a young couple at the next table, nursing drinks, listening to their own music, playing from their cell phone. A car breaks down in the nearby intersection – a tourist and local come together to help push it out of the way.

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By the time I make it back to my Airbnb, to crash for the night, I’ve been up for almost 24 hours, but I’m enjoying every moment of it. There’s so much more to see, and I’m just getting a taste of this country, with its bold flavors, strong coffee, and fragrant cigars. I hope to bring a bit of this environment home with me. . .

. . . to be continued!

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:

The White House (Policy on Cuba):

https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/17/fact-sheet-charting-new-course-cuba

Clapping When Your Flight Lands: http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/why-do-airplane-passengers-clap-after-landing

Investopedia – 3rd World Countries: http://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/third-world.asp

Frogger, by Saga: http://www.froggerclassic.appspot.com/

El Floridita: http://www.lahabana.com/guide/el-floridita/

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